The refugee Bahraini footballer Hakeem al-Araibi is set to return to Australia on Monday night after Thai authorities withdrew an extradition case against him.
Thai authorities told the Guardian the Bahraini government had decided to end their pursuit of Al-Araibi, who fled Bahrain in 2014 before being granted permanent residence in Australia, where he has lived since.
Al-Araibi, 25, has spent more than 70 days in detention after travelling to Bangkok for a honeymoon with his wife on 27 November. He was arrested on arrival after Bahrain obtained an Interpol red notice arrest warrant against him, even though Interpol policy dictates that red notices cannot be issued against refugees on behalf of the countries they fled.
Al-Araibi had been jailed and beaten in Bahrain during a crackdown on pro-democracy athletes. He was later sentenced in absentia to 10 years in jail over an act of vandalism he maintains he could not have committed because he was playing in a televised football match.
Before Monday Bahrain had stood firm on its allegations against Al-Araibi and denial of all accusations of human rights abuses, despite a mounting international scandal.
Supporters said he was expected to board a flight to Australia on Monday evening. The Guardian earlier confirmed through Gulf democracy advocates and Al-Araibi’s Thai lawyer that the Thai government had pulled the extradition case out of the courts.
Thailand’s head of immigration police, Surachate Hakparn, said the ministry of foreign affairs had received “new information” and petitioned the court to drop the case.
Speaking to the Guardian, Chatchom Akapin, the director general of the international affairs department of the attorney general’s office, said the primary reason was because “the Bahrain government no longer wants to pursue the extradition” of Al-Araibi. Chatchom said he did not know why Bahrain had dropped the extradition request. “Mr Hakeem is a free man now,” he added.
The abrupt change in Bahrain’s position came a day after the Thai foreign minister visited the crown prince, Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa, in Manama to discuss “bilateral relations between Bahrain and Thailand and reviewed areas of mutual interest”.
Bahrain’s ministry of foreign affairs acknowledged the development in a vaguely worded statement, which maintained Al-Araibi’s guilt.
“The Kingdom of Bahrain reaffirms its right to pursue all necessary legal actions against Mr Al-Araibi,” it said.
The Guardian has contacted the ministry for clarification.
Australia has repeatedly demanded Al-Araibi’s return, and as pressure increased on Thailand its foreign ministry released a statement last week saying it held no responsibility for the situation and the two nations had to sort it out between themselves.
Sayed Ahmed Alwadaei, director of advocacy of the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy, said Al-Araibi’s release was a “huge victory for the human rights movement” in the three nations involved, and globally.
“Hakeem’s ordeal ended after 76 days when there was a clear public stance and solidarity movement,” he said. “The football community, the human rights movement and all of those who dedicated their time and efforts to end this injustice were rewarded.”
The case has raised numerous serious questions about the practices of Interpol and Australian agencies that allowed Bahrain to use international law enforcement to chase down a refugee. The Australian federal police, acting as the local bureau of Interpol, notified Thailand that Al-Araibi was subject to a red notice and on his way to them, without also saying he was a refugee afforded Australian protection.
Craig Foster, the former Australian football captain and commentator who has spearheaded the campaign to free Al-Araibi, said the most important thing was his immediate wellbeing.
“I am sure that embassy staff will take care of him. There’ll be tears there tonight, as there are in our household right now,” he said.
He later said it was “a win for people power”.
“It’s a win for saying you can’t contravene international law, we will not allow it to occur. And that’s just people. It’s been an amazing movement to be involved in.”
The case has also shone a spotlight on the governance and international power of world football organisations. Sheikh Salman al-Khalifa, a Bahraini royal, was criticised by Al-Araibi in 2016 when he was seeking election to the presidency of Fifa. Al-Araibi spoke out about Sheikh Salman’s failure to protect Bahraini footballers during the crackdown, and while Sheikh Salman was head of the Bahrain football association.
He is now president of the Asian Football Confederation and vice-president of Fifa, but has said nothing publicly about the case. When pushed, the AFC suddenly announced Sheikh Salman had recused himself from regional responsibility 18 months earlier.
Foster told SBS news the issues around this case were not just about Al-Araibi but about “the soul of sport” and the circumstances around the actions of world football bodies and their leadership needed urgent investigation.
“Football and sport needs to have a very significant look at itself after this,” he said. “They need to say how do these people incarcerate athletes and torture some of them, and rise to positions of influence and prestige in global sport.”